Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Israel Hosts International Astronautical Congress, Signs Deal with NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (center) and Israel Space Agency Director General Menachem Kidron (right) sign cooperation agreement at the International Astronautical Congress held in Jerusalem, Oct. 13, 2015. Photo Credit: Yair Zrika

The 66th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) taking place in Jerusalem from Oct. 12-16 is a great opportunity for space agencies to tighten the bonds of cooperation. One of the deals was inked by NASA and the Israel Space Agency (ISA) on the sidelines of the meeting. The bilateral agreement is expected to deepen collaboration on civil space activities.

The deal was signed by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and ISA Director General Menachem Kidron on Tuesday, Oct. 13. The main goal of this agreement is to provide the framework for discussions of areas of cooperation between the agencies which could then lead to more specific agreements between the two sides.

Among the potential areas of cooperation enabled by this agreement are: joint missions, personnel and scientific data exchanges, ground-based research facilities, space exploration and operations missions, joint workshops and meetings, scientific instruments onboard aircraft and spacecraft, sounding rocket and scientific balloon flights, space communications, educational outreach, and other spacecraft and space research platforms. 

“The implications of this agreement for Israel’s space and scientific communities are tremendous,” said Israel’s Minister of Science, Technology and Space Ofir Akunis.

“The agreement provides us a platform for mutual cooperation between the Israeli and American space agencies and thus allows the science communities in both our counties important access to projects that offer the promise of significant development and growth in the years ahead,” he added.

The last agreement signed between NASA and the ISA was in 1996 and remained in effect until 2005. It paved the way for the training of the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Ramon trained for five years starting in 1998 in preparation for his mission on the Space Shuttle Columbia. The shuttle tragically exploded upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all six members of the crew.

The new deal is perceived as more far-reaching and in-depth than its predecessor.

“Our two countries have had a long history of cooperation in space exploration, scientific discovery and research, and we look forward to the opportunities this new agreement provides us to build upon this partnership,” Bolden said.

Kidron also welcomed the agreement, stressing that both sides intend to apply in practice future research-technology projects.

“Through the close collaboration of our two agencies we are blessed to have reached this agreement and we both intend to implement it by working together on research and technology projects of mutual interest and concern,” Kidron said.

ISA officials expressed hope that the Jewish state’s technology would play a key role in future missions to Mars.

The IAC attracted more than 2,000 people from 58 countries. The Congress features a five-day program with some 2,600 academic papers presented. Among the attendees are the heads of all the major space agencies as well as the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin.

The moonwalker told the press conference at IAC how he joined NASA's space program, about his first flight to space on the Gemini 12 in 1966 and about his trip to the moon in 1969. He joked that the only reason Neil Armstrong was able to make the historic first step on the lunar surface was "because he was standing closer to the door."

Aldrin also helped launch a new initiative together with ISA, the Israeli Ministry of Science and the Heinlein Foundation, which would promote interest in space education amongst Israeli youth. The Foundation presented three original space suits that will be displayed in Israeli schools.

The annual International Astronautical Congress is organized by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF). Founded in 1951 to foster the dialogue between scientists around the world and support international cooperation in all space-related activities, the IAF is the world leading space advocacy body with 300 members, including all key space agencies, companies, societies, associations and institutes across 62 countries.

ISA is a part of Israel’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Space, coordinates and supervises the national civil space program. Its objectives include establishing national space policy, and developing external relations and collaborations with other space agencies. ISA also coordinates scientific research activity and space exploration initiatives that involve Israeli academic institutions and industries.

Israel’s space program was established in the early 1980s. Its prime target was, and still is, to continue building an extensive space infrastructure. Originally motivated by national-security needs and lack of resources, Israel is focused on miniaturization and developing national capabilities in the area of lightweight, small satellites of high resolution, remote sensing and communications, a field in which it is acknowledged as a world leader.

Israel is part of numerous significant projects that require extensive international cooperation with space programs around the world, like the Vegetation and Environment monitoring on a New Micro-Satellite (VENµS) project. VENµS is a joint mission with the French Space Agency - Centre national d'etudes spatiales (CNES). It is a near polar sun-synchronous orbit microsatellite planned to be launched in 2016. It will provide data for scientific studies that focus on how to monitor, analyze and model land surfaces, given the influences of environmental factors and human activities.

ISA also developed a joint project with NASA. MEIDEX (Mediterranean Israel Dust Experiment) was an experiment that studied the Mediterranean region and its influence on the weather and climate. In particular, the study focused on the transport of mineral dust in the atmosphere over the Mediterranean Sea and the tropical Atlantic Ocean. The project included remote as well as in situ measurements of light scattering by desert aerosol particles in six wavelengths starting from near UV to solar IR. A large number of international, scientific collaborations had been set up in the context of this experiment. The experiment was one of the main missions of Israel’s astronaut Ilan Ramon, and was carried out on the Columbia Shuttle Mission in January 2003.

Israel currently focuses on Space IL project that aims to successfully launch, fly and land a robotic spacecraft on the moon, operate the spacecraft across the lunar surface, and transmit video, images, and data back to Earth. The spacecraft of choice is a micro-satellite carrying the Israeli flag. Through this project, Israel would become the third nation to land on the Moon.

Space IL is a non-profit organization established by a multidisciplinary team of Israeli space enthusiasts to compete with privately-funded space teams in the Google Lunar XPRIZE. The Google Lunar XPRIZE is a global race of lunar exploration, offering the largest international incentive prize of all time: a total of $30 million. Last week, SpaceIL announced a significant milestone in its race to the moon: securing a “ticket to the moon” on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher, with a mission scheduled for the second half of 2017. With this, SpaceIL became the first team to produce a verified launch contract in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition.

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